What they talk about when they talk about writing

I write only when inspiration strikes me. Fortunately it strikes me every morning at nine o’clock sharp. – Somerset Maugham

There’s a deep satisfaction that comes from publishing a piece of writing, even if it’s seen by only a handful of anonymous readers.

That satisfaction comes from a basic human desire. It’s the desire to create something with our hands, something that we alone willed into existence, and something that has a chance – however small – of outlasting us.

I want to write more than I currently do, but it’s hard. The problem? Finding the right words and putting them in the right order.

But I’m determined to become a better writer. Writing is like a sport – it’s fun to play, but it’s more fun when you’re good.

I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. – Murakami

As an avid reader, the writers I most enjoy (say, Orwell, or Hemingway, or Carver) seem to possess 2 skills: a mastery of style, which is like the foundation and walls of a house, and the ability to evoke emotion, which is like the furnishing and appliances.

You need the foundation and walls, but it’s the plush couch and comfortable lighting that make a place feel like home.

People ask me why I write. I write to find out what I know – Virginia Woolf

I have a lot of catching up to do. In 16 years of school, I barely learned the basics of writing style and certainly not the harder art of engaging emotion. Though we read Shakespeare and Twain and Achebe, I can’t explain how or why their work was so effective.

And though I wrote stacks of essays in response to various prompts, it’s the equivalent of a kid who, wanting to play in the NBA, practices by shooting free throws in the park.

This too to remember. If a man writes clearly enough any one can see if he fakes. If he mystifies to avoid a straight statement, which is very different from breaking so-called rules of syntax or grammar to make an effect which can be obtained in no other way, the writer takes a longer time to be known as a fake and other writers who are afflicted by the same necessity will praise him in their own defense. True mysticism should not be confused with incompetence in writing which seeks to mystify where there is no mystery but is really only the necessity to fake to cover lack of knowledge or the inability to state clearly. Mysticism implies a mystery and there are many mysteries; but incompetence is not one of them; nor is overwritten journalism made literature by the injection of a false epic quality. Remember this too: all bad writers are in love with the epic. – Ernest Hemingway

After school, I spent 7 years in business. Here, quantity and speed are more important than style and feeling. We write a novella’s worth of emails every week, but it’s done on deadline and with competing priorities. Sure, we may type a thoughtful team email or diligent Board update, but it’s filled with jargon and lacks feeling. Good writing – to me – is all about feeling.

With the aim of becoming a better writer, I’ve set 3 priorities:

Priority #1 is to write more and write carefully. Like meditation, careful writing is tough because it feels like an absence of activity. You use the same amount of energy as composing a business email, but at half the speed. You need to carefully choose your words. Write and rewrite paragraphs. Minimize jargon and overused figures of speech. And above all, make sure you’re saying what you want to say, and you’re saying it clearly.

Priority #2 is to study the work of good writers. Writing is a vulnerable, visible profession. Writers may not appear in celebrity tabloids or reality TV shows, but their brains are on display with every sentence. To paraphrase V.S. Naipaul, a writer’s being is the sum of his work, and to understand a writer, you need to understand his writing.

Some writers even translate the work of others. Murakami translated Fitzgerald. Franzen translated Kraus. I have a weekly goal of rewriting – word for word – a famous short story or essay. I’ll share the details in a future post; it’s something Ben Franklin used to do.

Priority #3 is to read the advice of good writers. Their advice is not without cliche and repetition. As with any creative act, there’s a mystery which can’t be explained.

However, there are articles worth sharing. Despite each writer’s unique style and background, there is one consistent message: pick the right words, put them in the right order, and do so with a purpose.

Here’s a list:

Literature is not like music; it isn’t for the young; there are no prodigies in writing. The knowledge or experience a writer seeks to transmit is social or sentimental; it takes time, it can take much of a man’s life, to process that experience, to understand what he has been through; and it takes great care and tact, then, for the nature of the experience not to be lost, not to be diluted by the wrong forms. The other man’s forms served the other man’s thoughts. – V.S. Naipaul

Unlike learning Chinese or living longer, “writing better” is hard to measure. But sometimes you just need to do something, and keep doing it, and eventually you’ll know.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.